Consumers who are always concerned about when their camera will become outdated should not only be aware of the technology that has been progressing in sensor performance, but also whether or not lens R&D will be able to keep up. A question dawned on us one day: with sensor technology moving ahead at such a fast pace, will lens technology be able to do the same? Years ago, it was common for a lens to last a photographer 10 years until the next refresh. But in more recent years, we’ve been seeing shorter lifespans of around five years. Part of this is due to developments in autofocusing and sensor technology.
But at the same time, should photographers be afraid that their collection of glass will become obsolete? We talked to the folks at Olympus, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Sigma and Tokina about this.
The Evolution of Lenses in the Past Few Years
“Compared to the time when sensor resolution is lower, the life of the lenses will be shorter. When the resolution was lower, the lens performance difference was not as noticeable.” states Sigma CEO Kazuto Yamaki. “The higher the resolution, the easier the customers can tell the difference in the lens performance. This could be the driving force behind the shorter life span of modern lenses. Seeing this noticeable difference in lens performance may drive the customers to upgrade.”
Indeed, the megapixel race has been a major catalyst in making many lenses obsolete. For example, Canon’s 35mm f1.4 L lens is still a viable option that offers beautiful image quality–but was introduced in 1998 and is over 10 years old now. Because of this, many DSLR owners needed an upgrade of some sort to work with high megapixel bodies. Back around 2009, the megapixel race reached the 21MP zone in the more contemporary formats. What reviewers and customers started to see is that the lenses didn’t perform as well on these higher megapixel camera bodies. So refreshes were obviously needed.
Michael Burnham of Tokina* agrees. He cites that it often depends on the manufacturer, but that the Canon 135mm F/2.0 has been unchanged for what could be over 12 years. “Another example, the Tokina AT-X 100mm F/2.8 macro lens was introduced in 2006 without any announced plans for replacement this year or next.”
But that reference is in regards to higher end lenses. When it comes to the lenses targeted at those who don’t reach for higher fruit, Mr. Burnham believes that innovation is moving at quite a fast pace. Specifically, he cites the super-zoom category. “Every 3-5 years someone comes out with a wider range…This was an unthinkable range 5 years ago.” states Michael. “This category of lenses will continue to move very quickly aided by better and better computer assisted lens design software. This is an exciting time for certain categories of lenses.”
The changes to the superzooms and more conventional lenses have also been a result of the fusion of both video and stills in interchangeable lens cameras. Back in 2009 (merely five years ago) no one ever thought that we would be filming Hollywood blockbusters with DSLRs until the 5D Mk II was announced and literally changed the landscape. Panasonic references these changes to how lenses have evolved.
A rep from Panasonic states that they are seeing a transition of photo lenses to meet the demands of a hybrid photography environment that continues to see strong growth. “Panasonic is creating lenses that best fit the needs of the end user and with most major improvements in lens technology these days is in the reduction of weight and improvements to make them more responsive to the needs of higher resolution sensors.” said the rep. “Of specific note is the greater use in video recording requiring motors that run silent and are more responsive to the needs of changes in focus control technologies.”
“Every 3-5 years someone comes out with a wider range…This was an unthinkable range 5 years ago.”
Richard Pelkowski, Product Manager for Olympus Imaging agrees with Panasonic–the other part of the Micro Four Thirds consortium. “HD Video has become more and more of a core feature demanded by the ILC cameras customer. Before the advent of incorporating this feature in what are primarily still capture photographic devices, no one cared if a lens’s AF drive made noise.” says Mr. Pelkowski. “In fact, the rapid whirring of motors and associated gear trains was normal and an expected reality of Auto-Focus mechanisms.”
“However, it soon became clear that noisy lens AF mechanisms transmitted unwanted noise and vibration to the camera body and could ruin the quality of the captured audio track. Manufacturers responded by incorporating ultra-quiet nearly silent lens drive mechanisms into their products – such as Olympus’ MSC or “Movie and Still Compatible” lens drive or VCM motor technology into all of its lens offerings.”
On Sensor Resolution
Companies like Zeiss have decided to go a different route with lens production than some other companies have. Very recently, they introduced their Otus lineup of lenses that are designed for high megapixel camera bodies. As a result, they carry a hefty price. These lenses live side by side with their other offerings for DSLRs.
But Sigma CEO Yamaki believes that lenses will still last consumers quite a long time. He tells us that improving lens resolving power is more difficult than increasing sensor resolution. “This is because manufacturing the lens involves complicated analog technology and in order to improve the performance of such devices, accumulations of small and detailed improvements are required.”
Mr. Yamaki states that sensor resolution will continue to increase and that the megapixel war isn’t over. But he believes that a manufacturer’s lens lineup will slow down the progression of sensor technology. He reasons that, “…it’s not so easy to find such a high performance lens that fits the super high resolution cameras. For manufacturers, it’s very challenging to make such a high performance lenses.” He continued to state that really good lenses will obviously survive much longer and that normal lenses may have a shorter lifespan. But on top of this, he believes that wise consumers go after the good lenses to begin with.
Mr. Burnham of Tokina agrees and believes that owners of higher end lenses don’t have anything major to worry about. In particular reference to the typical 70-200mm f2.8 lens, Michael states the optics are already excellent. But most of the folks buying lenses like these are pros. “Professionals need consistency in their optics and do not want to have to buy and adjust to individual characteristics of a new “staple” lens (like a workhorse 70-200 F2.8) every year.” states Mr. Burnham. “Let’s face it, professional photographers have relationships with their lenses. And while they are always looking to expand and acquire a focal length they do not have, they love or should love the lenses they use every day.”
Michael continued to state that the R&D expenses of lens development is quite high for premium lenses in comparison to sales volume.
“…manufacturers really have to have a need to replace higher-end optics.”
A rep from Fujifilm commented when we reached out for answers, referencing that the typical X series customer already goes after higher end glass. “The XF lenses have been designed to exceed expectations for the foreseeable (sensor technology) future. Our XF lenses will be able to resolve even more detail going forward.” They continued to state that photographers can feel very confident that their XF lenses will deliver amazing images for years to come.
The Future of Lenses
Mr. Pelkowski from Olympus states that his company believes that lenses can have a long life, and older lenses can still be of use to today’s photographer who continues to update their camera bodies as sensor and processing engine technology advance at a fairly rapid pace. When it comes to specifics though, Olympus is consistently working on improving the optical designs, size, weight, portability, and the mechanical performance of their lenses.
“…manufacturers really have to have a need to replace higher-end optics.”
“Thermal glass molding, precise measurement, and coating techniques are constantly advancing, allowing Olympus lenses to be renowned for their high-resolving power while effectively suppressing or eliminating unwanted aberrations. Olympus continues to advance lens coating effectiveness with its recently introduced ‘ZERO’ (ZUIKO Extra Low Reflection Optical) lens coating technology. One way to scientifically measure a lens performance is by MTF testing. Olympus lenses perform very highly in such testing and Olympus publishes MTF performance for all of our lenses.”
Sigma as well chimed in to state that they’re constantly working on performance improvement. “As a company, we only focus on photography, and because we are family owned, we have a very high standard of production.” states Mr. Yamaki. “As the life span of lenses does seem to shorten, we have taken measures to ensure a longer lifespan for our own products.” Specifically, he cites the USB dock that allows for firmware updates to address any issues that may arise in the future, the Mount Conversion service that allows for photographers to swap mounts if they so desire and the fact that every lens is tested before being shipped for a very high degree of QA. Indeed, the company has improved quite a bit from years before.
Mr. Pelkowski also explained more about some of the changes that they’ve had to adapt to: with one of the biggest being autofocus performance. “Camera AF technology has made huge advances in the past 5 years or so. Firstly, Mirrorless designs for the most part use ‘contrast detection’ AF systems. These systems vary greatly from ‘phase detection’ systems popular in the past in the way the lens ‘communicates’ with the camera body.” states Richard. “So the method by which the lens communicates the position of the focusing group and the method for the body to instruct the lens to move the focusing group to the correct position had to advance at the same rate as the body AF technologies in order to make the whole system work with the speed intended by the designers and desired by our customers.”
Richard states that focusing technology has come so far that some of the fastest cameras available on the market now use contrast detection. He also cites that the industry 10 years ago would have never have thought that this was possible.
“The inclusion of VCM, or ‘Voice Coil Motor’ lens drive mechanisms employed in two of our PRO line lenses is a prime example of how Olympus has advanced our lens drive technology to keep up with the AF technology in our camera bodies.”
Lastly, Richard cites durability always being a factor for many photographers who use their products. Besides all of this, Mr. Pelkowski states that cameras have also become smarter with the inclusion of WiFi and different apps that can be loaded onto the cameras.
Ultimately though, Sigma’s Mr. Kazuto Yamaki believes that despite all of the technology progression, a lens is all about a photographer’s personal tastes. “Sometimes, your favorite lens may not be sharpest or best performing lens, but its images stands out to you. Customers may like the lens because of its special “taste”. It’s not as simple as camera resolution. That’s why the lens is so interesting.”
*Mr. Michael Burnham stated to us that he spoke on his own behalf based on his experience in the industry over the years. His words do not represent those of Tokina.